Little Miracles

It’s been an interesting week for me, which seems like something that I’ve been saying a lot lately. I had my second board meeting for the little league (second one I attended because the last one I missed for my son’s birthday). I subbed at a middle school in the town where our church is being planted. I met with my leadership team for our church. I took my oldest son with me to see Bob Dylan. I met with a friend who leads an incredible ministry which includes a food pantry and weekend feedings of the homeless. I participated in a book discussion group where I was only one of two men in attendance.

In the midst of all that, I have had an interesting opportunity dropped in my lap for our church. It was one that was completely unexpected but one that has God’s fingerprints all over it. In some ways, it feels like the perfect situation because it provides for the long-term. The decision wouldn’t be made out of urgency or imminent need, but made out of a vision that God has given me for what lies ahead.

As I survey the events of the week, it’s hard to point to just one thing that seemed more significant than any of the others. They have all combined to fuel the fire of the week, a good fire, a fire that acts as fuel to propel the engine of who I am forward into whatever it is that God has in store. But as has been a common theme for me over the past years, community stands out significantly.

I serve a little league board in my community. I am getting to know the community of the middle school and elementary school in the community where I am serving. I am grateful and humbled by the community that God has surrounded me with to plant our church. We are partnered with and partnering with some incredible community organizations who are seeking the peace and prosperity of the place where God has us. I entered into a new community to have a civil discussion about topics which are usually accompanied by anger, frustration, and hurt.

Sitting down with my friend who runs the local ministry to the homeless and hurting, I was glad to hear some of his stories face to face. While I’ve had the chance to read some of them on social media, there’s nothing like hearing them for yourself, face to face, from the person who has experienced them.

There’s a verse in Hebrews in the Bible that talks of spurring one another on towards love and good deeds. The verse right after it is a verse that I point to over and over again to people who are constantly asking and wondering what the point is of being part of a church community. Don’t give up meeting together. Don’t take yourself out of community. Community is essential to spur you on to love and good deeds.

I can attest to this. That was my experience this week. Community made me better. Community changed me. Community helped me. Community helped me see things that I would normally miss.

In my conversation with my friend at lunch, we were both reminded of the ways that God has worked and is working all around us. My friend said, “If we don’t see it, it’s because we aren’t looking or paying attention.” Those words resonate so deeply with me.

I have felt a strong sense of my own need to celebrate the little things in the season of life where God has me. My frustrations and anxieties can be overwhelming to me, but I have to counteract them with a celebration of the little miracles that I see in my life. They are little enough that if I’m not looking, I will miss them. They are little enough that they might just underwhelm me when I’m looking at them…….if I forget what they truly are: miracles.

Little miracles happen every day, in the chance meetings of two people, in the opportunities that seemingly come out of nowhere, in the provisions that God brings, in all of the little things that I will rush right past if I don’t take time to slow down, pay attention, take notice, and tell about them.

Maybe it’s just a fuller realization for me of the old adage to stop and smell the roses, but it feels more significant than that to me. It feels more like touching the divine, the realization that God is here, not far away somewhere. The realization that the incarnation of Christ in Advent wasn’t completed in his death and resurrection, but was just the beginning.

At the end of this week, I am tired and weary, but not from bad or hard things, thankfully, from the overwhelming way that God meets me in my messy life. I’m hitting the weekend at just the right time, but I want to anticipate more of what this past week held for me. Because in experiencing more of what I did this week, I find the little miracles that God has for me. Nothing extravagant or ornate, but just enough that it keeps me coming back for more. Just enough that I can allay my fears and anxieties for a little bit longer. Just enough that it keeps hope alive and spurs me on to see whatever is next, lying just around the corner.

I Don’t Know Everything

texacoI constantly marvel at the fact that the more that I learn, the less I seem to know. I think it’s a direct result of opening myself up to new areas of knowledge which I am completely unfamiliar with and then the sudden realization that the world and universe are far greater, grander, and more expansive than my arrogant self ever imagined.

Paul’s letter to the church in Rome remains one of my all time favorite books in the Bible. In chapter 11 of that letter, Paul wrote, “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! “Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor? Who has ever given to God, that God should repay them?” For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.”

While I have no qualms with trumpeting the things that I know and the talents I possess, I have been humbled over the years at the realization that I don’t know nearly as much as I think I do. Despite the three degrees that I possess from higher learning institutions, I don’t really feel like I know much. Engineering and theology, two vastly different areas of study to the average onlooker, are far more interrelated than I once thought, but the study of them has not led me to somehow be more enlightened than the rest of the world.

The early learning experience in my life in which I had this realization was when I was working at the local Texaco station in high school (I guess there are still Texaco stations around, but I haven’t seen one in years). In my upper middle class town in southwest Connecticut, I may very well have been the only one of my peers who was spending his Saturdays pumping gas, washing windows, and operating a cash register at a gas station.

I remember being fifteen years old and living in my upper class world, showing up to work on the first day and thinking that I was so far above all the people with whom I was working. Needless to say, I got knocked off that horse pretty quickly.

It didn’t take long for me to begin to see that the world was far bigger and more diverse than my little bubble. I may have excelled in certain areas of academics, but all these guys I worked with far excelled me in the practical area of fixing things and knowing their way around car engines.

It was a very humbling thing for me to begin to realize this, and I was so grateful to have come to that understanding at fifteen rather than fifty. I began to look at these guys around me with a newfound respect, knowing that the was a complimentary nature to our relationships and to the world. I may have known a lot about one area that they were unfamiliar with, but their knowledge and experience far surpassed my own in other areas.

As I’ve lived a number of decades since then, I can honestly say that the lessons I learned at a little Texaco station in Darien, Connecticut have stuck with me since then and have proved to be invaluable for the winding road that followed.

I can’t say that I don’t ever fall into the trap of thinking I know more than I do, it happens more than I would like to admit, but I’m getting better at stepping back and seeing people’s knowledge beyond my own knowledge and understanding. One thing is for sure, when I’ve taken the time to step back and think through the level of knowledge that others have to offer above and beyond my own, I’ve come out the other side far better and more knowledgeable than I started.

Always Someone Smarter

As I’ve gotten older and become more comfortable in my own skin, I’ve seen the benefits of team. I’ve seen just how important it is to build trust in a team setting. I’ve also seen just how important it is to put aside any jealousy and animosity if the team is going to be healthy and succeed.

I’ve worked with StrengthsFinders over the years, but over the last 6 months, I have been diving in deeper as I have become a Strengths Communicator. It’s given me the chance to work with people on teams in order for them to better know their place with the talents and strengths that they have. When we come to understand our strengths as well as the strengths of those with whom we are on the team, we can grow much more effective and efficient.

I remember playing on sports teams in high school. There was always the inevitable “showboater” who wanted to make sure that it always became about him. Most coaches wouldn’t fall for it, and were usually turned off by that kind of behavior. But as I moved to the business world and even the church world, I began to see that same mentality play out among people. People wanted to make sure that they always got the glory for things and were never satisfied until they had achieved it.

But I’ve experienced something so much greater when humility penetrates that team and makes its way through all of the team members. People begin to look beyond themselves to see the bigger picture. Instead of trying to attain things for themselves, they’re looking at what will benefit the team. How can I ensure that the team will experience success? What can I do to make sure that we are all moving in the same direction?

Within the church, the motivation for the bigger picture should be even greater. It’s not about ourselves or even our individual churches, it’s about the Kingdom of God. Jesus laid out the bigger picture in Matthew 28 and when we miss it, we take the focus off of growing the Kingdom and plant it firmly on ourselves.

If we’re smart, we come to the realization that there is always someone smarter than us, stronger than us, better at something than us. IF we aren’t careful, that can rock our world and plant a root of jealousy among us. But if we look at it as being part of the bigger picture and serving together on a team, we can move much faster towards achieving our goals.

I used to be intimidated by others on the same team who had different gifts than I have, but then I realized that there were gifts that I had that were specific to me which they didn’t possess. It’s about knowing your place in the big picture, knowing what you’re good at, and knowing how best to use those gifts which you’ve been given.

Some people think that holding onto things and monopolizing information or functions actually affords them job security. I’ve grown to realize that the opposite is true. If there is something that I am doing and someone else comes along who does it better, how willing am I to give that task up? If I hang on to it because I am afraid that I will no longer be necessary, than I’m not really confident in my own abilities. But, if I realize the potential of someone else and can lead them to doing something better, I actually prove my worth by encouraging them, leading and coaching them, and allowing them to live into a potential that someone else might not have seen.

It’s amazing the opportunities that I’ve had which have helped me grow. I hope and pray that I will always look at people on my team as assets rather than threats. When I’ve had leaders who have known their own limitations, I’ve been much more productive. I hope that my leadership can flourish in grow in the same way.

Carved In Stone

IMG_3444I had been told all kinds of things about Mount Rushmore before I had the chance to visit. I had been told that it was in the middle of nowhere and that there just wasn’t much around or much to do. Most of the people who had gone before me, people who I trusted, told me that they were slightly disappointed in what they had seen.

Sometimes it’s better to go into a situation with low expectations, it usually means that there’s no place else to go but up. If you don’t have high expectations, chances of those expectations being dashed are fairly low.

So, when my family and I went to Mount Rushmore last month, I figured that we would be there for a few hours and then we would leave. I believed everything that had been told to me, that there would just not be any reason to hang out for any length of time. But, boy, was I wrong….or maybe the people who had gone before me were wrong.

As we drove up the mountain road that leads to the parking area at Mount Rushmore, the mountain face was visible from the car. My first thought was that it just didn’t seem to be as big as I thought that it would be, that I anticipated, that I thought it should be. Somehow or another, the pictures had made it look……smaller, somehow.

Once we found a parking place and made our way closer to the mountain face, it was captivating to me. I couldn’t help but just stand there and stare. No, it wasn’t as big as I had thought that it would be, but somehow, it drew me in, it kept me staring. I could see that there was something much more to this mountain than just some faces on stone.

But, there’s always something lying beneath the surface. Just as Gutzon Borglum had to test the rocks and explore beneath the surface to find out just how his sculpture could be carved into that mountain in the Black Hills, so we had to look deeper, beyond just what we saw on the surface.

As we made our way into the museum there at Mount Rushmore, I discovered the context that I needed. Looking at pictures, reading through descriptions, coming to an understanding of this mountain, it was so much more than just four faces carved into granite, it was a picture of hope, a picture of adventure, a picture of courage, a picture of freedom, and so much more than that. Each face carved into that stone was representative of something so much more and the sum of the parts were greater than the individual parts, which is saying quite a lot considering just how important and valuable each of those parts was.

As I walked through the exhibits in the museum, I encountered this paragraph on the wall:

“The Meaning of Mount Rushmore: The four American Presidents carved into the granite of Mount Rushmore were chosen by the sculptor to commemorate the founding, growth, preservation, and development of the United States. They symbolize the principles of liberty and freedom on which the nation was founded. George Washing signifies the struggle for independence and the birth of the Republic; Thomas Jefferson the territorial expansion of the country; Abraham Lincoln the permanent union of the States, and equality for all citizens, and Theodore Roosevelt, the 20th century role of the United States in world affairs and the rights of the common man.”

And then I knew why the urge to stare was so strong, why I was drawn to those faces and that mountain. There was a sense of patriotism there, a sense of liberty and freedom that somehow drew the casual observer in, inviting them to see beyond the stone to what it represented. These faces seemed to mean so much more, especially during this time in our country’s history.

In the midst of a political landscape where it seems buffoons and liars have somehow made their way up to the top, these faces carved in stone represent character and integrity that seems lost today. Carved there in stone to remind us just where we have come from and what we have gained, these figures stand in stark contrast to the characters that we have seen paraded before us on the political stage. Their word was their bond, they believed in something, they had principles, they had integrity, they were not so easily bought and one even gave his life, albeit unwillingly, for fighting a fight that he knew had to be won.

These faces, and more importantly the men behind them, are right where they need to be, standing as a symbol to the rest of us that there is hope, there is liberty, there is integrity. But maybe, just maybe, like this rock, it needs to be blasted and chiseled and carved, maybe it needs to be sought out, digging much deeper than we’ve dug before, prospecting beneath the surface. In the words of the sculptor himself, “Hence, let us place there, carved high, as close to heaven as we can, the words of our leaders, their faces to show posterity what manner of men they were. Then breathe a prayer that these records will endure until the wind and the rain along shall wear them away.”

I was deeply impacted by what I saw and experienced at Mount Rushmore. As I stood there looking at these stone faces, I tried to think about the last president who was worthy of having his face carved into stone, and I found myself at a loss.

Making Memories, Slowing Down, Being Flexible

IMG_2566I’m coming up to the halfway point of my cross country trip with my family. We’re about 3100 miles into the trip and it’s been an adventure. I’ve never had to change the oil on a trip before. It wasn’t because of bad timing on my part, it was because we’ve just drive THAT many miles.

We got all the way to Carlsbad, New Mexico and finally had to use our camping gear that had been stored in a roof cargo bag. Turns out, with the high temperatures and high speeds that we had been driving (all within the speed limit), the cargo bag didn’t fare very well. So, we were forced to move everything that had been on the roof into the car. 5 people, luggage, a plug-in cooler, camping gear, and everything else that we had, all packed into a mini-van.

Sound like fun yet?

We’ve seen the Biltmore House, Graceland, the French Quarter, the Civil Rights Museum, the Alamo. Carlsbad Caverns, and we’ve not even gotten to Hollywood yet.

It’s been a whirlwind and my brain hasn’t been able to process things nearly as quickly as I am seeing them. My camera shutter is going off a mile a minute and I’m wondering when my wife is going to ask the inevitable question of how many pictures I’ve taken on the trip and whether I’m going to actually include anyone in those pictures.

We’ve changed our plans here and there, abandoned destinations, added destinations, been forced to accommodate for unforeseen circumstances, and tried to keep three kids nine years old and younger occupied and under control for the thousands of miles that we have driven. Throughout all of it, there are three big lessons that have emerged. Make memories. Slow Down. Be flexible.

I have been constantly amazed at the fact that the things that I think are going to capture my kids seem to be met with ho-hum responses while the things that I wouldn’t have expected would garner excitement and response are the ones to which they react to the most strongly. It’s the moments which you least expect which are the ones that will probably last the longest.

I’ve witnessed the sun rise over the desert mountains in New Mexico with my son on multiple mornings. As we watched the sun climb up the horizon, I couldn’t help but put my arm around him, hold him a little closer, and realize that we were sharing a moment together, no one else. We’ve been to gift shops galore, bought the T-shirts and the snow globes, but it’s moments like these that will make the largest mark on my kids.

Although we’ve been to some amazing places, seen some amazing things, my daughter seems to want to judge the places we stay on their swimming pools. So, taking time to swim in these pools has had to be part of our routine, as much as possible. They’re all pools to me, but they hold some kind of magic for her. Not sure why, but there’s really no point in arguing. Swimming pools on rooftops in New Orleans to swimming pools in the desert in New Mexico, they all seem to capture the eye of my four year old, and I bet she’ll remember them when everything else seems to fade away.

Memories can’t be forcefully made. I’ve had to remind myself of that over and over again. As much as I would love to create moments along the way, the ones that stick are the ones for which I never planned, the ones that sneak up on me, the ones that just happen, without any pre-planning or contriving. Those are the moments that make for the best memories, and you just have to go with them.

There have been moments when we’ve had to put movies on the DVD player for the kids. As much as I would love for them to be as enamored with the landscape as much as my wife and I have been, I know that they just aren’t and I can’t force it. One of the films we brought along for them to watch is “Cars,” the Pixar movie. The more I watch that movie, the more I fall in love with it, and although I didn’t actually watch it (I just listened to the audio as I drove along), I couldn’t help but have my heart strings tugged when James Taylor sings about “Our Town” and I began to realize yet again how quickly things can change around you.

At one point in the movie, Lightning McQueen (the main character) and his love interest, Sally, go for a drive. It’s something McQueen isn’t familiar with, after all, he’s a race car. The idea of just going for a drive on a country road doesn’t really make any sense to him…..until he does it. Sure, his motives weren’t pure at first, but then he realizes what can happen when you just slow down.

I’ve found the same thing. When I stop rushing around and slow down, I see things that I didn’t see before, I hear things that I hadn’t heard before, the world just looks different to me. Slowing down means that I can’t pack my schedule so tight that there’s no breathing room. When my schedule is so jam-packed, the inevitable response from me will be frustration because there is no margin of error built into my schedule. Plans are good, but planning too tightly will simply result in frustration and, eventually, anger. That’s never a good place to be.

Finally, I’m learning to be flexible. I’m learning that it doesn’t matter if we take a detour. I’m learning that you can’t see everything and that the things that you want to see might not be what everyone else wants to see. Flexibility is not a family trait that I have inherited (I’ve blogged about it before), so I’ve got to work a little harder at it. But as I work to be more flexible, it leaves the space that I talked about above and it also leaves space for the memories to be made.

I won’t lie and say that there hasn’t been any frustration on the trip. There has been shouting. There have been tears. There has been anger, but I think that should be expected considering the circumstances. But we’re doing our best to make this trip of a lifetime really live up to what we’ve been calling it all along. The. Trip. Of. A. Lifetime.

We’re so incredibly grateful for this time as a family and I don’t even think that we will fully appreciate just what it’s meant to all of us for months and years to come. We’re reaching the halfway point and I can’t wait to see how this adventure goes!

If You Can’t Say Something Nice…

Cam Newton dejected

The Carolina Panthers were a machine and force to be reckoned with for the majority of the 2015-16 season. Cam Newton, their quarterback, alone was able to run the ball so well if he didn’t hand it off or find an open receiver. Going into Super Bowl 50, they seemed unstoppable.

And yet, somehow, they were stopped. In fact, they were made to look like a shadow of who they had been throughout the season. The pomp and attitude that had marked them, their celebratory dances and gestures were nowhere to be found while they watched their chance at a championship slowly fade into the California sunset.

Throughout the game, the ordinarily bouncy and boisterous Cam Newton seemed tired, reserved, frustrated, and unsure of himself. His confidence wasn’t there and it seemed as if someone had handed this “Superman” his kryptonite. His joyous celebrations were nowhere to be found because there was really nothing for him to celebrate

After the game, his comments were short. His usually verboseness was nowhere to be found. He seemed agitated that he needed to sit there and answer any questions at all from the media, almost like a child being forced to sit and take their punishment. Not far off from where he was sitting could be heard the celebratory cries and shouts of the Denver Broncos, the team that had bested him for the coveted Vince Lombardi trophy. With all this swirling around, Newton cut the interview short by getting up and walking out on the reporters.

Some critics have charged that it was his duty and responsibility to answer any and all questions that the reporters had of him. I’m not so sure that I agree with them. They thought his attitude was bad (which it kind of was) and that he should have answered the questions asked of him instead of getting up and walking out. He was accused of being a sore loser.

Newton has since come out and admitted to being a sore loser, because if you find someone who is content in losing, then you’ve found, he claimed, a loser. He quoted Vince Lombardi himself by saying, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”

Remember the movie “Bambi” and the title character’s friend Thumper? Remember what he told his friends? “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all!” I think it’s pretty good advice, advice that Newton most likely took to heart himself. In his moment of frustration and weakness, I think he inadvertently embraced that very phrase for reasons of self-preservation.

I know what it’s like for me to be in emotionally charged situations. I’ve come to points where I’ve needed to embrace my own need for restraint. It’s a hard thing to do. Passionate people react passionately. As a friend and colleague often says, there is a shadow side to all of the strengths that we have. While Newton’s passion and leadership shined throughout the season, that same passion and leadership could get him in trouble should he not curb it in a heated moment.

Cam Newton is 26 years old. In our culture, it seems that we expect more and more from those who are younger. We expect them to do things we never did at their age, to act differently and more mature than how we acted when we were their age. Some might even say that we are asking them to grow up faster than we did. Sure, he’s making millions of dollars, millions of people are watching him throw a leather ball around, but he’s human, no matter how superhuman he may have claimed to be throughout the season.

Going into Super Bowl 50, I was not a fan of the Carolina Panthers. I’ve grown tired of all professional athletes showboating when they perform well, and my disdain for it certainly carried over Newton and his Panthers. It helped that the quarterback which he was up against had always handled himself with professionalism and grace. But that quarterback was also 13 years his senior and had far more experience than Newton has had.

Only time will tell what Newton learned from this beating, only time will tell whether he learned a valuable lesson in that beating. Time alone is the test of the lessons that we all learn and how well we learn them.

There’s no denying that Cam Newton has talent, the kind of talent that makes rivals hate him for just how good he is, but in the humility area, he’s got a long way to go, or so it seems. I say, give him a break, let him learn through experience, in time, we’ll see just how good he is at learning valuable life lessons.

A Broken Toy Christmas

Christmas with Steve and Jon-2I’ve had so many people make reference to this story that I’ve shared personally, via sermons and my old blog, that I felt the need to dig it out, dust it off, and retell it for the sake of those who have never heard it before. Maybe also for the sake of those who have heard it because sometimes a retelling can make you notice something else.

One year, when my brother and I were probably about 11 and 7, respectively, we had been pretty terrible in the months leading up to Christmas. We were constantly fighting and getting at each other and my parents had constantly warned us that if we didn’t stop, “Santa” would be bringing us nothing but broken, old toys for Christmas. Now, regardless of the fact that we didn’t believe in Santa Claus (nor had we ever), we still used that language for whatever reason. My parents knew that both my brother and I were not believers in the big, fat guy in a red suite.

My parents were jokers, although not many of our friends and some of theirs didn’t believe it. They could joke with the best of them and I think my brother and I thought that they were kidding in this instance too. Our parents would never dream of withholding presents from us at Christmas, right? After all, everyone should get presents, right?

Regardless of their constant threats, Christmas morning approached with little to no improvement in our behavior. I guess we were just stupid enough to believe that our parents would never dream of holding out on us.

Christmas morning finally arrived and we woke up with excitement to see what might be waiting for us under that tree. Imagine the surprise on my brother’s and my face when we arrived at the Christmas tree to find that the only thing underneath it was a pile of broken and old toys with a note that said something to the effect of, “You’ve been naughty, and here’s what you get!”

My brother and I were devastated. Me being the younger of the two of us, I think that I was probably more so. I remember whining and crying and trying to convince my parents that this was unfair and unjust (trying to capitalize on the biblical notion of justice, because that’s what pastor’s kids do to win an argument, invoke the “God” excuse).

I’m not sure how long my parents let this whole thing go on. Like most things that happen when you’re young, it probably went on for far less time than it felt like it had gone on. Finally, after my parents had felt that their point had been sufficiently made, they went to a closet and pulled out all of the “real” presents. Replacing all of the broken toys under the tree were these beautifully wrapped presents. Of course, my brother and I played it up as if we knew our parents would do this all along. We were overjoyed by this gracious act, telling our parents that we knew all along that they would never do this to us, while secretly taking in a deep sigh of relief.

No matter how far I get away from this story, I just can’t forget it. Years go by, both of my parents are gone now, but I still remember the Christmas which has affectionately become known to my brother and I as “The Broken Toy Christmas.”

Parenting experts may call the exercise cruel and unjust, some people may think that it was harsh, and to be frank, I’m still not exactly sure how I feel about it. My leaning is towards the fact that my parents showed my brother and I an incredible amount of grace. What we deserved, based on our actions and behavior, was the broken toys. What they gave us were the presents that showed that despite our imperfections, they loved us. My parents had shown grace in a way that rarely gets seen in this world.

Too many people cower to the whines and complaints of their children. There rarely seem to be consequences when behavior that is less than stellar is displayed. Instead, parents idly threaten their children and then give them what they never deserved with no hesitation.

I didn’t have to go through years of counseling to get over this and yet I still remember the Christmas vividly. In a lot of ways, I can’t help but connect what my parents did to what God did for us when he sent Jesus to the world. The history of God’s people is full of stubborn and obstinate people who thought that regardless of their behavior, a loving God would never turn his back on them and would never mete out justice on them. They were right, but someone still had to pay the price. That someone was Jesus. He is the gift of grace that God gave to us. When we deserved nothing but “broken and old toys” God gave us the best thing that he had to offer: his only son.

As I raise my kids, I hope and pray that I can instill in them the fact that Christmas isn’t about getting what we deserve, it’s about receiving the gift of grace from God. Christmas isn’t about all the commercialism that is preached at us from Black Friday on, it’s the realization that no gift could ever compare to what we receive in and through Christ.

May we come to the realization that the best thing that we can get and give is the news of this gift of grace. May our hearts always be reminded of what we deserve and be thankful of what we receive instead through grace.

Merry Christmas!

Love and Death and Memories

Our family road tripping continued with more adventure this summer. We started out our adventures a few weeks ago when, on our way down to Orlando in our family van, the transmission blew out on us. It was fortunately under warranty and a friend graciously loaned us an extra vehicle that fit our entire family. While it was a bit smaller of a vehicle, we were so grateful for the generosity of this friend.

We came home to find that the initial transmission replacement was not adequate, so we waited a second time, knowing that we had another road trip coming up. Once the transmission was replaced, other stuff started happening to the van. Sensors quit functioning and were replaced but lights continued to go off and we continued to scratch our heads. You know that it’s not good when the mechanic gives the car back to you and says that you would be better off going to the dealer.

After going to a dealer close to home, we thought that we were in the clear for our trip to Connecticut. After getting the car back from the dealer, I test drove it on the highway, on the back roads, and all around town, putting a decent amount of miles on it to ensure that we would be okay for our trip.

We left at our usual 4AM time slot and got about an hour and a half from home before the car started acting up again. There’s nothing like the tension one feels in one’s shoulders and back while driving another five and a half hours wondering whether or not your car is going to make it to its intended destination while packed with belongings, family, and all.

We made it to our destination and dropped it off once again at a car dealer to see if our problem could be remedied. We quickly realized the difference between the pace of life and busyness back at home in Virginia versus in Connecticut where much of our family resides. In Virginia, we dropped the car off and got it back fairly quickly. In Connecticut, we waited a few days just to have it seen.

Amidst all of this, we attended a family wedding and had a chance to catch up with family that we only see a few times a year. The wedding was simple and fun and we enjoyed our time together. That night, our adventure would continue.

I woke up the next morning to texts from my brother alerting me that my uncle, my father’s brother, had passed away during the night. My wife and I had hoped to have a chance to see him before this happened. His health had begun to decline more rapidly over the last few months and we missed an opportunity to gather with family a few months back when they knew that the time would be short until his passing. Life doesn’t always afford us the breaks and getaways that we desire, and that was one time when it didn’t. Weekends are always tough for pastors to get away.

I spent the better part of that day processing through the news of my uncle’s death. I could spend a whole lot of posts expounding on the life lessons that I have learned in the last few days, and I expect that I probably will. There is much to be shared about redemption, about reconciliation, about love, about grace, and about forgiveness. There is much to be shared about family, about brotherly love, about protection, and about stories that sometimes come to us much later than we would have hoped.

I’m looking forward to sharing in the days ahead. As I said to a friend when she privately offered condolences to me over the loss of my uncle, I have seen the fingerprints of God throughout this situation. I haven’t tried to look for God in the midst of every circumstance, he made himself abundantly known in the midst of every. single. One!

Soli Deo Gloria!

Open Your Eyes

I sat on my couch, hearing the ticking of the clock behind me and trying to focus. Even in the quiet of the morning with nothing but that ticking clock to distract me, I can still somehow find ways to lose my focus.

As my eyes opened and closed, I wondered to myself, who said that the proper stance for prayer was head bowed and eyes closed? I get it, but it’s a hard thing for me to do. So, after assuming the position multiple times, I finally gave in and left my eyes open.

I turned my body to face the back of my house and the windows that looked out onto the screened porch. Beyond the porch was the horizon and I could see the sun rising in the distance. As its warm glow slowly made its way into the morning sky, I wondered how many times I had actually seen it there.

Of course, I know that every day the sun rises and the sun sets whether or not I notice it, but I wondered whether or not I had actually realized that I had the view that I had. How had I missed it? What was I doing that kept me so distracted from seeing this event unfold before my eyes?

It seems a constant theme in our world, the need to slow down and smell the roses. We can easily fall into the trap of stepping into time with the rest of our culture and becoming overwhelmed with busyness. We find ourselves running in the rat race that we didn’t even realize we had entered. We wonder how we got there when we had told ourselves that we wouldn’t fall victim to the trap, we wouldn’t get suckered in.

How many times have I said that I wouldn’t only to find that I really would?

Slow down.

Take a breath.

Breathe easy.

As I watched through the trees to see that glowing orb light up the morning sky, it was a gentle reminder to me that my eyes need to constantly be opened. If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there, it still falls. If a sun rises with beauty and grace and no one notices, it still happens.

Chances are, when I wake up tomorrow morning that I will miss this sunrise again. I will go through my day and pass by a thousand little things that will astound me should I notice them. But what things will I notice? What things will call my attention and steal my focus?

I’m watching. I’m listening. Lord, let me be attentive.

Life Lessons From Running

Proper-Running-FormThis week I passed the 200 mile mark in my running. For those who run marathons, it’s not much of an accomplishment, they do 1/8 of that every time that they go out and run a marathon, but for me, who has never been much of a runner, it was a big accomplishment.

After pushing myself to my limit and beyond for a number of years and after enduring a season of strife and difficulty in my life, I had finally pulled myself to the doctor last Fall. I knew that things were not good, I could feel it. My body was not doing what it used to do and I could sense that something was off, I just didn’t know what it was.

After some tests and visits to a few doctors, I came to find out that my heart was pumping weakly. Having a history of heart disease in my family, it was a wake-up call. It scared me as I considered my wife and three kids. I didn’t want to leave them behind because I was too stupid and selfish to take care of myself. So, I started running.

I’m not fast and I don’t even particularly like to run, but it provides me time alone to think and aerobic exercise which seems to be a winning combination. I get up at the crack of dawn and run while it’s still dark.

As I pass this milestone for me, I realized that there are a lot of life lessons that I’ve learned through my running in this brief time. Here are a few of the takeaways that I have had in my brief time running.

1) Running is way more mental than I ever realized – So many different sports are mental, but you don’t always think about it until you are actually doing it. As I run 3 or 4 times a week, I realize just how much my mind can either propel me forward or keep me back. The moment that my tired bones and muscles communicate their state to my brain is the minute that I can feel myself starting to slip into an even slower jog. If I don’t get control over my mental state, I can easily find myself turning into a slacker. Waking up early. Running faster. There are so many factors that are dictated and driven by my mental state and coming to grip with that, realizing it, is an important part of moving forward.

2) Motivation is a powerful thing – All it took for me to get my butt in gear was one visit to the doctor and being told that things weren’t what they were supposed to be. I knew it in my heart before I had even shown up at the doctor, but being told this by a professional was enough motivation for me. I never would have thought that I would have done everything that I have done up to this point, but alas, here I am. I don’t want to overspiritualize the situation, but Paul’s words in Philippians 4:12-13 seem to ring true to me, “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”

3) I still don’t fully know what I am capable of doing – I’m still stepping gingerly and tentatively into this endeavor. I’m being cautious and careful, and maybe even safe. Some might even say “too safe.” There is still fear in my and I just don’t know what my body is capable of doing, but I still keep doing. Every once in a while, I get a push and I move forward. There is still enough newness in this whole thing to keep it fresh and exciting for me. Since I don’t know what I can do, there are always surprises, and for me, that’s a good thing. The minute that it stops having some surprises is the minute that it stops being fun and I stop really caring about it anymore.

4) There is a fine line between being comfortable and knowing your limits – I’ve been running on this line. Since I run in the morning, I know that I still have the whole day in front of me when I finish a run. There is a fear in me that I will expend all of my energy and then have nothing left for the day. It’s not likely to happen, but it’s still a fear that I have to overcome. There is that fine line between staying in a comfortable place and knowing how much you can push yourself. To be honest, this is probably one reserved for a full blog post some day, so I won’t say much about it here, other than to say that #1 very much plays into this as well and my mental state can convince me whether or not I am pushing myself, staying comfortable, or knowing my own limitations.

5) Better together – When my wife and I celebrated 10 years of marriage together, it was a month before I lost my mom. My wife was also pregnant with our daughter, so there were factors that kept us from focusing a lot on ourselves. But one thing that I was able to do was pull together a video of our first 10 years together. One predominant theme throughout those years was that we were better together. We sometimes tried to do things on our own, projects, cleaning, whatever, but we found that we had more fun and got way more accomplished when we pooled our resources and did it together.

The same can be said for running. The times that I have run faster and harder are the times that I have had someone with me, pushing me, inspiring me, encouraging me. We weren’t created to be alone, we were created for intimacy, to be together in community. I am better when I have others around me to inspire, encourage, and provoke me (in the best way possible).

Like I said, I’m not really a big fan of running, but I am a fan of what it has afforded me. I’m a fan of the fact that I have time to clear my head, to get exercise, and to push myself to see what I can accomplish. I don’t know what kind of races I will run in the future, I don’t imagine that a half marathon or full marathon are in the cards for me, but who knows.

For now, I’ll just keep running and learning the life lessons that come across as I run. I’ll embrace Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, “24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. 25 Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. 26 Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. 27 No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”

Because running is really about more than just running, it’s about life and all the lessons you can learn along the way.